Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ninotchka (1939) at the Somerville Theater

Ninotchka (1939) was screened this past Sunday at the Somerville Theater as part of their Summer Classic Film Series. I singled out the two lesser known films in the series, Captain's Courageous and Ninotchka, to watch and made the trek out to Somerville on Sunday mornings to see them both.

I propose that this movie have a new subtitle. I would call it Ninotchka: A Capitalist Love Story. This film is a great example of American propaganda in the form of entertainment. Even though the story takes place in France, Russia and Turkey, the main star Greta Garbo was from Sweden and the director Ernst Lubitsch was from Germany, this is an American film with an American message in mind for it's American audience. Or is it?

The story starts with 3 emissaries from Russia who travel to Paris in order to sell royal Russian jewels in exchange for money that they can bring back to support their country's cause. The three loveable Soviet Comrades get a little caught up in the titillating life in Paris. Turns out, the jewels actually belong to the deposed Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), whose boyfriend is Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas). The Duchess wants her jewels back but the three Soviets need to sell them. Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to Paris to fix the whole mess. She arrives to discover that her 3 comrades are staying in the most expensive suite in the most expensive hotel in Paris. Staying in the room for a one week is equal to purchasing 7 whole cows in Soviet Russia, and she imagines how much many people that would feed. Ninotchka, at first very repulsed by the Capitalist lifestyle of excess that she sees in France, falls for Melvyn Douglas' Leon, who is the epitome of upper class excess. Can she sell the jewels before the Duchess gets to them? Will she go back to Soviet Russia or will she stay in Capitalist France with Leon (Melvyn Douglas).

The witty back-and-forth between stern Garbo and free spirited Douglas is very funny (Billy Wilder was one of the writers). The two characters are polar opposites of each other so it's amusing to watch them clash as they fall hopelessly in love. The over-arching political message dampens the humor of the film a bit. At it's foundation, this film is really pitting Capitalism against Socialism/Communism. While it doesn't show Capitalism in the best light, it shows Communism in the worst. Why can't Garbo have her hat, her champagne and her 7 cow hotel room? Why can't she have the silk negligee and the love letters from France? How dare the Soviets deny her of this! Is the pro-Capitalism message something that MGM felt they needed to reinforce or was it just supporting an already established belief in the good of Capitalism that America held during WWII. Capitalism is great for the Duchess and the Count, but what about the Count's Butler. The one that Garbo calls "little father"? The Butler is at an advanced age, has been working without pay for 2 months and as the beck and call of the Count. Is this the fruits of Capitalism? Like many films from the late 1930s, there is a major "fix" in the film. It corrects any notion you may have of Capitalism being bad by showing you how the Soviets feed off of Capitalism in other countries for their own welfare. Any subversive message about negative aspects of Capitalism are quickly corrected with a nice final fix. Besides, it's a love story. How dare those Soviets get in the way. Capitalism will show him who is boss!

I'm not political. Really I'm not. However, I kept thinking of the American debt crisis while I was watching this film. And the fact that I had read that Apple has more cash than the United States (eek!). How would modern audiences interpret the representation of Capitalism in this film? Especially those scenes in which the older butler (past retirement age), is working without pay for Count Leon (Douglas) who himself has no money and lives off his title and the illusion of wealth that he created and perpetuates. I don't feel right exploring this topic further because as I said, I'm not very political. However, it's food for thought.

Leon: What kind of a girl are you, anyway?
Ninotchka: Just what you see. A tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution.
Leon: You're the most adorable cog I've ever seen.


  1. Personally, I really bristle at the obvious propaganda in movies. With Ninotchka, I think it was the pro-capitalism propaganda coupled with the usual blithe classism of a Hollywood film. Lots of U.S. films have plots where characters work for free as though it's no big deal, and it usually isn't. It's just a plot contrivance that doesn't mean anything usually, but when paired with a "yay capitalism rules!" plot it does make me cringe.

  2. Duchesses and counts have little to do with capitalism, they were leftovers of the European class system. a man who earns no money of his own and lives off of some inherited "title" can hardly be called a capitalist.
    we cant know what it was like to live in communist Russia during the 20s and 30's but to get a rough idea one might read Ayn Rand's "We the Living" (she was a Russian immigrant) and it wont take long to see that the biggest question on the minds of many people in that country wasnt why cant i have a negligee or a hat but why cant i feed my family today?

    all that aside i LOVE Ninotchka! its very funny and Garbo is just a delight from start to finish. if yo wanna see a hilariously bad "remake" check out Howard Hughes "Jet Pilot" with the Duke and Janet Leigh :)

  3. Stacia - In this case, it's definitely coupled with yay capitalism rules. Garbo pities the poor unpaid butler. It would have been different if they both ignored perhaps. Or maybe if they didn't mention his unpaid state at all.

    Paulie - Well, Melvyn Douglas' character refers to himself as a capitalist and Garbo refers to him as that as well. In fact, he's more capitalist than count. I think it's only mentioned a couple times that he's a count. And the duchess is living off of the fruits of a capitalist lifestyle. Capitalism is a huge theme here. It can really be ignored because of a technicality.

    Thanks for the reading and viewing recommendations and for stopping by.

  4. i didnt mean anyone should ignore it, its actually fascinating how capitalism is portrayed and so misrepresented in that film! i saw jet pilot before i saw Ninotchka so as usual i did things backwards O_o musta been nice seeing that on the big screen tho!


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